The Sign of the Beaver. Elizabeth George Speare. 1983. Random House. 135 pages.
It took me less than an hour to read this Newbery Honor book. What did I think about it? Well, it's flawed for one thing. With its use of words like "savage" and "squaw" etc. to describe American Indians. (One of the things that I noticed throughout was the broken English used by the Indian characters.)
The book stars a young boy named Matt. He's twelve or thirteen. And his father has left him in the family's new cabin in the wilderness of Maine. His father needed his son's help in building the cabin and planting the corn. And now he needs his son's help in "protecting" this new home while he returns to his family to bring back his wife and daughter.
Should Matt have been able to survive on his own? Maybe, maybe not. Certain circumstances come about leaving Matt's survival in question--his gun is stolen, much of his food is destroyed. Fortunately, there are a few local Indians who go out of their way to befriend the young boy. Through the months as he waits for his family to return, Matt slowly but surely sees Attean--the Indian boy--as a friend, a true friend, almost a brother. There are layers of distrust and hatred--on both sides--that must be overcome for this friendship to work. That doesn't mean Attean trusts white men. That doesn't mean Attean is happy that white settlers are moving onto his people's hunting grounds. That he is happy to be moving because of all this "progress."
One of the interesting aspects of this one is that Matt shares with Attean Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. He reads--albeit an edited version of the tale--aloud to him. Matt's commentary--his observations--on Robinson Crusoe are interesting--to me. His little asides, his little realizations. His friendship with Attean lead him to question (though perhaps not drastically enough) his favorite book. Though Matt has his flawed moments--he is meant to represent (I believe) a thinking person.
The novel is flawed in my opinion. I think readers should think about the way Attean is presented, how he is portrayed. To consider that this is Matt's story, his perspective. And that Attean's story would be different.
See More On Sign Of the Beaver at American Indians in Children's Literature.
And When Books Fall Out of Fashion at The Miss Rumphius Effect.
He opened Robinson Crusoe at the first page and began to read. I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York....He stopped. He remembered suddenly how the first time he had tried to read this book he had found that first page so dull he had come close to giving up right there. He had better skip the beginning and get on with the story if he wanted to catch Attean's attention. "I'll read the part about the storm at sea," he said.
© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews